Monthly Archives: December 2021

Busy doing nothing

Johnny (Courtesy of M Blackford)

“Don’t work too hard!”, “Enjoy some down time – you deserve a good break”, “Switch those gadgets off … be with your loved ones, not your phones”.

These are the words of Professors Paul Nurse and Raj Shekhawat and international educator, Aga Sypniewska, picked randomly from a search of the internet. And they are not alone in their advice: Numerous articles, social media posts and videos advise us that we should relax and allow time for our mental and physical well-being. “That’s easier said than done,”, I hear many of you saying, “when you are overloaded with work and the pressure to meet deadlines.”

‘Burn out’ and ‘Academia’ were words that never used to appear in the same sentence a few decades, or even a few years, ago. However, a Google search on these words nowadays throws up dozens of results with headline articles in Nature and THES, such as “Pandemic burnout is rife in Academia”, “How burnout and imposter syndrome blight scientific careers” and “Workaholic academics need to stop taking pride in their burnout”.

Having worked in the academic world myself over the past 30 years, I have witnessed the increasing imposition of targets, goals and league tables. I was working on a scientific journal when the impact factor system was introduced. The effect of these new metrics was not immediately obvious, but over the following years, the number of manuscripts submitted gradually increased around 10-fold, with papers being split into twos and threes, presumably, to demonstrate increased productivity.

The advent of personal computers didn’t help matters, as people started to forego breaks and lunchtime get-togethers to continue working at their desks. I sometimes reminisce about the days when we would all break off at 10.30 and 15.30 to have a half-hour coffee break, or the early career researchers would organise fun events such as themed cocktail parties and Christmas parties. In fact, this culture still does exist to some extent in a few more enlightened institutions, as reported by Vivienne Tam in her Science article.

There is an upside to our latter-day culture: An increasingly bright light is being shone on the academic work environment, scrutiny of bullying behaviour, levelling up of inequalities, the introduction of supportive initiatives such as the Athena and HR excellence in research awards, and, not forgetting, the researcher career management programmes that now exist in many universities and research institutes. In addition, there’s more scope to be involved in research associated activities, such as science communication, organising conferences, collaborating with external partners and applying for internships.

So, returning to the quotes at the start of this post, how can you reconcile your workload with taking a break and being good to yourself? The reality of the here and now very often takes precedence over the creation of ideas and future possibilities and, whilst practical hard graft is the bedrock of investigative research, equally, considering new directions, having ‘light-bulb moments’ and discussing ideas with colleagues forms the inspiration that balances the research equation (and can also be the basis for potential new funding). Of course, we’re all different in terms of our personality, resilience, personal and professional situation and a whole host of other factors, so there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. However, from my own experience, and from hearing other people’s stories, stepping back from time to time to review your situation in order to build a workable work strategy into your life can be a ‘life-saver’.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with some blogs I’ve written on the subject of ‘keeping a perspective’, ‘staying calm‘, and ‘practising mindfulness’ that may help you to start considering the possibility of allowing yourself to spend some time being ‘busy doing nothing’. My intention is to take the advice of Prof Raj Shekhawat and go as much ‘off the radar’ as I can over the next two weeks with a holiday in the sun, where I hear the wifi is very poor. This will help me to ‘practice what I preach’; I aim to replace my internet surfing and email checking with reading, swimming, relaxing and even simply just staring up at the sky dreaming new dreams.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy year ahead.